Saturday, August 4, 2018

Chemistry lacking in a food-for-thought Madame Butterfly on tour by Opera Australia: Herald Sun Review

Published in Melbourne's Herald Sun in print in edited form, 18th July 2018.
Not published online at Herald Sun.

Sharon Zhai as Madame Butterfly
The fragility of hope and happiness is powerfully contrasted with hopelessness and sorrow in Puccini’s popular opera, Madame Butterfly. As a symbol between them, it could be said, resides Butterfly’s sheathed knife, eventually used in an act of hara-kiri that drives home the tragedy of betrayal and loss.

Opening Friday night, it’s 10 years since director John Bell’s food-for-thought production was first staged as part of Opera Australia’s touring arm across regional centres. In a perceptive though not uncommon update of the work to post WWII Japan during American occupation, Bell brings into focus the fraught pairing of smug self-entitlement and dominance with vulnerability and desperation. 

Aided by designer Jennie Tate’s liberally concocted aesthetics and subtle cultural blending – performed on and around a floating platform backed by sliding doors - with Matt Scott’s impressive subtle lighting, every scene felt firmly supported. 

Sung in English, however, the fluidity of line felt compromised. Amongst principal roles doubled during the tour, Sharon Zhai depicted with quaint confidence the underage Japanese bride whose family has fallen on hard times. Indeed, so now has Nagasaki. Puccini could never have imagined the extent to which his ‘verismo’ work could aptly sit some 40 years after its premiere in 1904. That no obvious reference is made to Nagasaki’s atomic bombing seemed a lost opportunity. 

M. Reardon, A. Yun and A. Moran
While delightfully sweet and pure of tone, the extremities of Zhai’s range suffered. Often fluttering about to distraction, Butterfly loses human heart to gestural ineffectiveness.  Her love, the reckless American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, who fully intends to marry a ‘real” American bride, was warmly interpreted by Matthew Reardon but the shared chemistry with Zhai was lukewarm. 

Anna Yun imbued gravitas in her unwavering loyalty as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki and Michael Petruccelli excelled in both voice and comic style as the marriage broker Goro. Andrew Moran brought distinction to the diplomatic and rational US consul Sharpless while Steven Gallop’s interjection as the incensed Bonze showed how experience informs. 

Despite a lean orchestra, conductor Warwick Stengards led with a thoughtfully paced and textured rendition. And how delightfully integrated the children’s chorus drawn from the local community were, front of stage, giving the "Humming Chorus" sweet innocence!

Madame Butterfly 
Opera Australia Regional Tour, Victoria
Until 1st September 


Production Photos: Jeff Busby 

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